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Samuel Johnson

(1709 - 1784 / Lichfield / England)

Gnothi Seauton


When Scaliger, whole years of labour past,
Beheld his lexicon complete at last
And weary of his task, with wond'ring eyes,
Saw, from words pil'd on words, a fabric rise,
He curs'd the industry, inertly strong,
In creeping toil that could persist so long;
And if, enrag'd he cried, heav'n meant to shed
Its keenest vengeance on the guilty head,
The drudgery of words the damn'd would know,
Doom'd to write lexicons in endless woe.

Yes, you had cause, great genius, to repent;
'You lost good days, that might be better spent;'
You well might grudge the hours of ling'ring pain,
And view your learned labours with disdain.
To you were given the large expanded mind,
The flame of genius, and the taste refin'd.
'Twas yours, on eagle wings, aloft to soar,
And, amidst rolling worlds, the great first cause explore,
To fix the aeras of recorded time,
And live in ev'ry age and ev'ry clime;
Record the chiefs, who propt their country's cause;
Who founded empires, and establish'd laws;
To learn whate'er the sage, with virtue fraught,
Whate'er the muse of moral wisdom taught.
These were your quarry; these to you were known,
And the world's ample volume was your own.

Yet, warn'd by me, ye pigmy wits, beware,
Nor with immortal Scaliger compare.
For me, though his example strike my view,
Oh! not for me his footsteps to pursue.
Whether first nature, unpropitious, cold,
This clay compounded in a ruder mould;
Or the slow current, loit'ring at my heart,
No gleam of wit or fancy can impart;
Whate'er the cause, from me no numbers flow,
No visions warm me, and no raptures glow.
A mind like Scaliger's, superior still,
No grief could conquer, no misfortune chill.
Though, for the maze of words, his native skies
He seem'd to quit, 'twas but again to rise;
To mount, once more, to the bright source of day,
And view the wonders of th' ethereal way.
The love of fame his gen'rous bosom fir'd;
Each science hail'd him, and each muse inspir'd.
For him the sons of learning trimm'd the bays,
And nations grew harmonious in his praise.

My task perform'd, and all my labours o'er,
For me what lot has fortune now in store?
The listless will succeeds, that worst disease,
The rack of indolence, the sluggish ease.
Care grows on care, and o'er my aching brain
Black melancholy pours her morbid train.
No kind relief, no lenitive at hand,
I seek, at midnight clubs, the social band;
But midnight clubs, where wit with noise conspires,
Where Comus revels, and where wine inspires,
Delight no more: I seek my lonely bed,
And call on sleep to sooth my languid head.
But sleep from these sad lids flies far away;
I mourn all night, and dread the coming day.
Exhausted, tir'd, I throw my eyes around,
To find some vacant spot on classic ground;
And soon, vain hope! I form a grand design;
Languor succeeds, and all my pow'rs decline.
If science open not her richest vein,
Without materials all our toil is vain.
A form to rugged stone when Phidias gives--
Beneath his touch a new creation lives.
Remove his marble, and his genius dies:
With nature then no breathing statue vies.
Whate'er I plan, I feel my pow'rs confin'd
By fortune's frown, and penury of mind.
I boast no knowledge, glean'd with toil and strife,
That bright reward of a well acted life.
I view myself, while reason's feeble light
Shoots a pale glimmer through the gloom of night;
While passions, error, phantoms of the brain,
And vain opinions, fill the dark domain;
A dreary void, where fears, with grief combin'd,
Waste all within, and desolate the mind.

What then remains? Must I, in slow decline,
To mute inglorious ease old age resign?
Or, bold ambition kindling in my breast,
Attempt some arduous task? Or, were it best,
Brooding o'er lexicons to pass the day,
And in that labour drudge my life away?

Submitted: Wednesday, April 07, 2010

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